You probably noticed that stop-motion animation creates the letters in First We Eat (using local foods!).
But we bet you didn’t know that worm composting makes the title disappear!
Read on to hear Joel’s fascinating tale of creating the title sequence for First We Eat and see some close up footage of the worms in action!
Working on the title for First We Eat was a lot of fun. It started at the 2018 Dawson City International Short Film Festival when Suzanne and her daughter Tess attended the timelapse and stop motion workshops I was teaching. In the workshops Suzanne experimented with making a title for her film using worms and sourdough. There wasn’t enough time for it to work out during the festival, so when I got back home we started a collaboration.
I had worked with red wiggler earthworms for a previous project, but there were still some problems I hadn’t figured out.
The first one I had to solve was that they don’t like light! I used computer scanners with plexiglas containers on top to capture the timelapses, so I wasn’t able to adjust the intensity of the lighting to the liking of the worms. The one factor I could adjust was the frequency of the scans. After a few tests I discovered that they would come down to the scanner glass to eat the letters if an image was taken once every half hour. This wasn’t ideal as a higher image frequency creates smoother timelapses, but the title sequence goes by quickly so it ended up being fine.
Suzanne’s idea for the title was to have the letters be made from produce able to be farmed or foraged in the Yukon.
I used her produce list to plan a colour scheme and then started experimenting with letter timelapses from that. The next thing I learned was that the red wigglers’ food had to be prepared in the right way. After experimenting I discovered that red wiggler worms are like children in that they like their food soft! Here you can see an experiment I did with cooked carrots (left) and raw ones (right). [raw cooked carrot test still off to side] The raw ones only start getting eaten after seven days. In the second part you can see how the cooked corn was eaten first, the raw carrots second, with the raw cabbage barely being eaten at all after eight days.
The process of settling on a good colour scheme took some time. I had discovered that red cabbage can become many colours depending on its pH, from pink when acidic all the way to blue and even green when basic. Since cabbage was on the list I took it as an opportunity to introduce some brilliant pink into the sequence. I boiled red cabbage in water with vinegar to cook it and turn it pink. As the soil turned the now-acidic cabbage more basic the colours changed nicely to blue.
I then had the idea that a pink cabbage letter would go well with another purple or pink one so that each word could be similarly-coloured, allowing them to contrast against each other. Since there aren’t that many types of Yukon produce that are pink or purple I let the shortest word, “We”, be pink. Unsurprisingly a lot of the produce on the list was green, so I let the longest word, “First”, be green. Then I decided that “Eat” could be a gradient of red to yellow.
My first idea for a companion to the cabbage was to use saskatoons. I was able to find frozen saskatoons locally, but decided that they weren’t the best for the shot as their dark purple colouration doesn’t contrast well with the soil and the worms.
My next idea was to use corn. I found a purple heirloom variety of corn from a farm in Ontario which I thought could be good. The timelapse worked but the colour was too dull for my liking.
After going over Suzanne’s list a few times I thought that roses could work nicely with cabbage. Roses were on the list because their fruits, rosehips, are edible, but I realized I could also use their flowers. Even though the species of rose found in the Yukon is different from the one found at a flower shop, I figured it would be close enough.
I got some roses from a florist, prepared the timelapse and then eagerly started watching the images as they came in. After a few days I was disappointed to find that the worms weren’t eating them! I began searching for answers by looking into the commercial rose industry and started to worry that the pesticides roses are treated with could be discouraging the worms from eating them. But luckily after a day or two the worms began to feast on the petals.
The next challenge that came up was trying to make the soil moisture between timelapses consistent. This was important because wetter soil is darker than drier soil, and since each letter was its own shot they had to be able to be edited together seamlessly afterwards. I got a soil moisture reading device to help me make the soil moisture for each timelapse consistent, but in the end it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was able to harmonize the soil colours in the editing process afterwards as long as the soil wasn’t too dry.
Soil moisture did end up being a problem in some shots. I did a lot of the shots in the basement during winter and I became concerned that the cold was slowing down the worms. I started to use heat mats with a thermostat to heat the scanners up, but this had the unintended consequence of drying out the soil. In this video you can see how some of the cucumber peel pieces don’t get eaten because they dry out too quickly.
In this carrot A shot, you can see how the worms stop eating the carrots when the soil becomes too dry. The mites seemed to be better able to withstand the dryness, as you can see in the second shot. With the clip of the letter R made of peas, mites take over as it becomes too hot and dry for the worms closer to the scanner glass.
The final challenge was digitally adding soil in the corners of the overall sequence where there wasn’t any. I had tried sprinkling aquarium filter charcoal onto the produce at the beginning of the project to see if it would help me fade the letters into black for editing purposes, but the worms didn’t eat the charcoal-covered produce. I’m not sure I would either. All in all I’m happy with how the sequence turned out!
— Joel Penner